John Broomhall speaks to Earcom’s Paul Weir about the excitement surrounding Hello Games’ intriguing title
No Man’s Sky is a title on everyone’s lips. Tell us more about your contribution to this project.
My main occupation currently is working on No Man’s Sky as audio director and sound designer, although I remain involved with Microsoft’s Lift London studio. For No Man’s Sky, I’m responsible for how the game sounds and any specific audio tech development. As the game covers such a large scope, from
large-scale space battles to solitary planetary exploration, it presents a massive creative challenge.
No Man’s Sky’s audio has attracted much attention – in the New Yorker, no less! Is that a good thing at this stage or does it create unwelcome auxiliary pressures?
There’s something about the game’s vast free-form nature, its outrageous ambition and the way it references classic sci-fi books and films that has caught peoples’ attention. That it’s being made by such a small indie team also feeds the interest. It’s the most audacious game I’ve ever worked on, although the high expectations set both within the team and by fans can be terrifying – a double-edged sword.
It’s amazing that it’s been picked up by so many people but when we’re trying to innovate and there’s only myself on the audio, the pressure is certainly there. Hopefully people will be equally enthusiastic about the game and its audio following the release. I’ll certainly be doing my best to ensure that happens.
How would you compare working on a Hello Games-scale title compared to a triple-A big-budget affair?
It’s refreshing being able to create and implement sounds without having a cumbersome review process. There’s very little wastage – almost every sound I make gets into the game and being the sole sound designer helps maintain a consistency in style. The disadvantage is there’s no hiding within a team or being able to call upon help and have a wider perspective so one does feel quite exposed on a project like this.
You’re known for a pioneering spirit regarding a generative approach to audio. What does that fundamentally mean for you and, of course, for No Man’s Sky?
I’m a firm believer that we should experiment with ideas to create soundtracks that are intrinsically
game-orientated – and more importantly, I enjoy playing with emergent behaviour-type technology.
I’ve fallen almost by accident into doing a lot of generative audio work, particularly with the soundscapes I create for retail spaces. It’s very interesting how game audio techniques are leaking into the ‘real’ world and there’s a clear parallel between commercial spaces and game levels.
I’ve been working with Sandy White to build a physically modelled vocal tract that we call VocAlien to create entirely synthesised creature sounds. We planned to try this from the get-go as it was clear that creating sounds for the creatures was going to be problematic. Recording animals is difficult, time consuming and expensive, so there was a strong justification for investing in a modelled approach. VocAlien is a plug-in that sits within Wwise and can also be performed via MIDI – it feels very much like an instrument. In a procedural game with procedural creatures, it makes sense to give them a procedural voice.
For the music, the band 65daysofstatic have written an excellent soundtrack. To complement that, we’re making a generative music system called Pulse, which we’ll all collaborate on. It’s the most flexible generative music system I’ve designed so far but also, hopefully, easy to use. I want to reduce the amount of effort and learning required to create music in a more granular and adaptive way.